India is the third largest supplier of salt in the world, 73% of which is produced by the saltpan workers of Kutch (Kutch is a district in the Western state of Gujarat, in India ). Salt is produced along the coastal line and in the Little Rann of Kutch (a seasonal marshy saline clayey desert). More then 100,000 people are engaged in this work – mostly from vulnerable communities.
Salt is produced in large ‘pans’, where sea or water from borewells is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind the salt. Salt production is labour intensive work, and workers are subject to many occupational health hazards. Basic infrastructure is generally poor, drinking water and electricity is scarce, and open defecation is commonly practised. It is a highly saline environment, with very strong winds and intense sun. Vegetation is difficult to sustain, except for the ubiquitous Prosipus Juileflora.
Salt-pan workers migrate from villages to work on the salt pans for 8 – 9 months of the year. Salt production is not possible during the monsoon season and so the workers return to their home villages for 3-4 months of the year. Most people migrate with their families, and children often contribute to the production of salt. Some families work on individual salt pans, however generally 30 – 40 families work together on a the salt pans of a single company. However, the same families do not nessecary migrate back to the same salt-pan each year – typically only about 50% of families work on the same slat-pan each year. People from many different communities may work together on the same salt-pan.
Due to this seasonal migration, for 8 months of the year children remain outside their regular village school system. Studies carried out by Adesar SETU (SETU is a facility set-up by NGO’s to help clusters of villages in their development) in 9 villages show that literacy rate is only about 24% and nearly 53% of school-age going children do not attend school.
Cohesion has been working with the salt-pan workers of Kutch since 2001. To support the education of children from migrant families, Cohesion has set-up hostels in home villages, where children can stay for 8 months whilst their parents migrate for work. This means children are able to attend their regular village school.
However, many parents still choose to migrate with their families and children. For these families Cohesion has worked with them to set-up a school at the salt-pan site. These schools are affiliated with the government education system schools in the families local villages, which means that their attendance is registered there, and so children are eligible to take government exams and receive official certificates.
Each salt pan school has a single teacher who is trained by Cohesion, preferably someone from the local community is employed. About 30 -40 children attend each school, with ages ranging from 5 to 13 year old, (after 13 years old children generally go to work on the salt pans as child labourers). Each school day lasts about 5 hours. Children are split into approx. 4 groups according to ability, and the teacher rotates between the groups. Activities also take place which includes all the children together.
Currently the schools take place in a single room hut. At the start of each season after building their own homes, the families get together to build their own small school hut, according to their capacity. This is an important activity as many of families may not know each other, and this tasks gives an opportunity for these families to bond and build a sense of community. 30 - 40 students squeeze together into these school huts.
Cohesion is helping to manage nearly 30 of these schools in both the coastal and the Little Rann salt pans.
Male salt pan workers can expect to earn about Rs.40 per day for manual labourer – (manual labour else where earns between Rs.100 – Rs150 per day). Women earn Rs.5 – 10 less then this, and children are rarely paid.
The salt-pan workers are very dependent on the merchants, who fixes the rate the salt pan worker will get for their salt. Also the merchants are usually the people who supply basic goods (drinking water, food) and other items to salt-pan workers.
The main community who engage in salt-pan work are the Koli and Vagher community . Traditionally these communities earned a living through forest produce (eg honey and gum) however in recent years their forest have been disappearing fast. 3 out of every 5 years in Kutch is a drought year, which means that agriculture does not give a dependable income. Salt pan work gives a low but regular yearly income, so many families are now adopted this livelihood.
Climatic conditions and terrain
Kutch lies on the tropic of cancer – and is an arid region. Rainfall is low (avg. annual rainfall is 250mm) and irregular, the monsoon lasts from July to September). However, during monsoons the Little Rann of Kutch (in which the salt pans are located) become muddy saline marsh lands, as many of the southern flowing rivers from other districts end here.
Kutch is exposed to extreme climates – winters(December – March) temperatures can get near to 0 C and in the summer 45 C is not rare. During summer (mid-March to end- June) whirlwinds and sand storms are common in the salt pan area.
Due to the evaporation from the large salt pans, the climate remains salty and humid. This salinity causes materials to corrode and degrade.
On the edge of the Rann is loamy soil with sparse vegatation – this is non-saline soil which can be used for mud plaster and flooring. At the start of the Rann there are small (2 – 3m high) sand dunes, after which comes the mud flats of the Rann. The land is absolutely flat with no indulations or landmarks.
The salt pans are located 0.5 – 1km from the sand dunes in the mud flats. Inbetween the sand dunes and the salt pans, the salt pan workers build their huts.
Learning from local practices
People build their own houses in the salt pan settlements. A pit approx 2.5m x 4m and about 1 - 1.5m deep is dug. Above it a tent is constructed made from Jute / Tarpaulin and branches of the Prosopus Juliflora, if available grass is strapped on top. The excavated earth is piled around the pit to secure the tent. Openings are to the north east direction - away from the main wind direction.
Advantages of sub-terrainan house
i) The sub-terranian house gives thermal comfort as the surrounding ground moderates the temperature in the pit.
ii) It’s low-height means that harsh winds blow over the top of it
iii) It uses local material and labour so is economical
iv) People are able to build it themselves - digging pits is a skill they have acquired through making salt pans.
iv) It temperory nature means it can be modified each year, to suit the needs of the new family that move into it
There is a need to improve the condition of these schools. In the salt-pan settlements there are few community facilities, conditions are dire with little to raise the dignity and hope of the people. Children run around in the scorching sun, buffeted by the salt and sand laden wind.
The rituals associated with the school (its annual repair by the community) need to be maintained, and the wider role a formal building could play in these vulnerable communities also needs to be explored. After school times the structure can be used as a community space – none such space exists in these settlements at the moment.
The school should be able to accommodate 30 – 40 children of various ages and ability. It should be flexible enough to be used by a number of small groups as well as for activities involving all the children. As there is only one teacher, they should be able to easily supervise the different groups simultaneously.
Often the eldest girl child of the family does not attend the school. This is because they often have to look after their younger siblings while their parents go to work on the salt pans. A crèche space is needed in the school which can be observed by the teacher and the elder siblings.
The school is located at the top of the sand dune, to prevent it from flooding during the monsoon season.
The school is sub-terrarinian, helping it maintain thermal comfort. The tensile roof is double skin – which also aids thermal comfort.
To protect against strong winds the school has a low profile with the wind ward side further secured by the excavated earth. The entrance is on the leeward side of the harshest prevailing wind.
To break the high winds and dust, a wind breaker is put to the south-west of the school. Whilst in the Rann vegetation is rare, the sand dune is at the edge of the Rann and next to the loamy soil, which is more favourable to vegetation.
Initially a wattle and daub perforated wall is built, and vegetation planted on the windward side of this. It will take a year or two for these plants to become established. During which time the wattle and daub wall protect them from the harsher winds. Eventually the wattle and daub wall will degrade leaving the plants to act as a wind breaker.
A number of species are suitable for the sand dune area including the
Salvadora persica and such family (these are evergeen plants even in arid saline regions. They give small juicy fruits which are a delicacy for children in Kutch)
Carrying forward traditional knowledge
The general principals of the design (sub-terrain, light weight roof, lee-ward facing openings) are based on the traditional construction knowledge of the salt pan workers.
In the villages of the Koli and Vagher community mud is the main construction material, including adobe, wattle and daub, mud painting /mural and mud plaster. By using these techniques in the construction of the school the community will be able to bring their identity to their school.
The under side of the double skin tensile roof is made from traditional material and decorated using block printing and hand-embroidary – two crafts which Kutch is famous for.
Each year the school will degrade slightly. Each year the new community will get together to achieve a common goal for their children by repairing the classrooms.
Due to the isolated and vulnerable nature of the salt-pan communities, self-sustainable services would be most appropriate.
During the monsoon months the tensile structure is inverted to become a funnel in which rain water is collected. A tank adjacent to the school stores the rain water which is available, ready-to-use, when the community returns.
The settlements are very isolated and electrical mains supply is rare. The intense sun light means that solar lanterns will be used to light the school in the evenings, meaning that the structure can be used as a community space.
There is a main central assembly / play area which also doubles up as a crèche. Adjacent to this space are 4 nooks which can accommodate a small number of children. Low dividing walls ensure that the teacher easily able to observe all the children.
In the evenings the building will be used as a gathering space for the community
- sloping sides of the excavated pit.
- The sloping sides are stabilized using wattle and daub (branches of Prosipus Juileflora (local plant), mud (as below)). This can be further decorated using mud paint.
- Wattle and daub walls
– Mud flooring (using non-saline clay available from the other side of the sand dune, cow/camal/donkey/goat dung)
- Outer skin – PTFE
- Inner skin – local cotton + hand block printing and embroidery
- Ties – steel cable